Are rural working lands sustainable with just agricultural production?

Having grown up on a farm, I considered the opportunity to join the Climate Corporation back in 2015 as their Chief Technology Officer one of the privileges of my career. Since that time, the use of digital tools in commercial agriculture has become the norm, helping to highlight the productivity of a producer’s operation by making better decisions. Growers and service providers alike now use data to understand the results of side-by-side trials, treatments, seeding rates, fertility, water, heat, and ultimately yields. Frame 6 (2)

Now the industry is evolving and adopting newer practices, intended to be better for the environment and more sustainable for soil health and biodiversity. You can’t pick up any ag publication today without reading about “regenerative ag” and it’s attracting a lot of investment dollars to help producers with adoption and implementation. If digital tools were all about quantifying productivity, these new practices add a layer of purpose on top. 

These advancements are important, but what about profitability? After all, the ability of a producer to adapt to change relies on one thing - the ability to continue farming or ranching. We know from USDA data the only thing keeping small and medium size operations profitable is actually off-farm income. As these farms and ranches go out of business, they either consolidate or get developed. The people move to more urban areas and the rural community slowly dies as the schools, restaurants, banks, and other businesses close. There’s a lot of talk today about sustainability of production, but shouldn’t we talk about the sustainability of the rural way of life as well?

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What if there were a new type of “ag company” which focused on making the farmer or rancher more sustainable through profitability? If the fundamental key to adopting regenerative practices, conserving habitat, promoting biodiversity, and supporting wildlife on private land is the profitability of the landowner, then perhaps that is where we should focus.

And with that context, it is my pleasure to introduce you to LandTrust Inc., which I joined as Chief Operating Officer last October. Our mission is to sustainably improve private rural lands while increasing landowner profitability. We believe the future of rural working lands will depend on a portfolio of income from agricultural production, recreation, and conservation opportunities. Our model is one of partnership - farmers, ranchers, and other private landowners are our business partners. LandTrust connects them with net-new revenue to improve the profitability and long-term sustainability of their operation. Our free-market approach to conservation then also improves the sustainability of private land habitat and wildlife in the process and keeps the private landowner in complete control.

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So how does it work? LandTrust is creating the first of its kind recreation access network - connecting landowners to revenue from three main areas: recreation, agritourism, and ecotourism. The outdoor recreation access market in the United States is approximately $17B a year - $5B of which is specifically hunting and fishing access. In 2020, our first year of operation, our highest earning landowner added $28,000 to their bottom line. We’ve had recreators book properties for hunting, fishing, stargazing, photography, bird watching, and even mushroom gathering. Landowners appreciate the vetted, respectful recreators on the LandTrust platform, and recreators appreciate the opportunity to access some incredibly unique private properties, with 95% of experiences rated 5 stars. Above all else, LandTrust is an outdoors experience company, connecting those seeking experiences with those who can provide them.

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Now our landowner partners are bringing their own ideas to us around agritourism. Experiences like cattle roundups, farm tours, baby animals, etc. are all interesting to recreators, particularly those in more urban areas who want to understand better where our food, fuel, and fiber comes from. The opportunity to connect the other 99% of people to our 1% of agricultural producers is special, and we feel that better understanding on both sides will be beneficial for everyone. 

Our landowners have used the revenue to install new solar wells, fix barns, re-gravel roads, and re-invest back into the property. Recreators also stay at the local hotels, eat at the diner, and shop at the local businesses - adding revenue and invigorating the local community. When landowners receive these new revenue streams they naturally want to improve the experience to earn even more - putting otherwise low-ROI ground into habitat and food plots for wildlife, adjusting their cover crop blend, or even putting up a cabin or bunkhouse for visitors to stay while on the property. As part of the booking, our sportsmen contribute to species conservation groups like Ducks Unlimited, National Wild Turkey Federation, and National Deer Association - directly funding the research and programs to then implement on our landowner properties. 

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So that is what LandTrust is all about. I’m blessed with another opportunity to continue working with farmers and ranchers but more specifically help them improve profitability and keep our rural working lands in working hands for another generation to come. The LandTrust model is a win for recreators, a win for landowners and their communities, and a win for sustainable habitat and wildlife. Sustainability through profitability - to preserve our working lands, our wildlife, and our rural way of life.